The treadmill was the perfect Victorian torture device in the 1800’s

If you ever thought “Why am I torturing myself” on a treadmill, you aren’t far off.

“A Victorian Prison.” The National Archives. 

Treadmills or Treadwheels were invented in 1818 by an English engineer named Sir William Cubitt, son of a miller. Noting idle prisoners at Bury St Edmundsgaol, he saw an opportunity.  He proposed using their muscle power to “cure” their idleness and produce useful work.

He thought that his invention, the “tread-mill”, might “reform offenders by teaching them habits of industry.”

Endless Staircase

If you thought your first day back at the gym was grim, wait until you hear this.

Prisoners stepped on 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel, like walking up an endless staircase. Or a modern Stairmaster.

As the wheel turned, the prisoner was forced to step up or risk falling off. Meanwhile, the rotation made gears pump out water, crush grain or power mills which is where the name treadmill came from.

Some, like the treadmill at the Vagrants Prison in Coldbath Fields, were fitted with partitions so that prisoners were isolated and could see only the wall in front of them.

Prisoners were often forced to spend up to six hours a day on the wheel, which was the equivalent of climbing about 5,000 to 14,000 feet.  14,00 feet is roughly Mount Everest’s halfway point.

Prisoners at Warwick Gaol walked an incredible 17,000 vertical feet over 10 hours one hot summer.

Perfect Punishment

With a decade of its creation, 50 English prisons and the same number of American boasted a treadmill.  Many Victorians saw the treadmills as a positive solution to prison idleness.

An 1875 broadside held them responsible for “a great improvement in Prison discipline”, while the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline called them a “preventative punishment”.

It was thought that no-one who experienced the treadmill would ever want to commit another crime.

In 1824, New York prison guard James Hardie credited the treadmill with taming his more boisterous inmates:

The monotonous steadiness and not its severity….constitute the terror

As you can image, the backbreaking labor brought many to an early grave.  The writer Oscar Wilde, for example, walked a treadmill in Pentonville Prison as part of his 1895 hard labor sentence. It almost killed him. He left prison in 1897 and died just two years later aged 46.

Treadmills lasted in England until the late 19th century when they were banned for being excessively cruel.

In 1911, a treadmill patent was registered in the U.S. and now we pay a monthly fee to use ’em.


Sources: BBC, TedEd

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